Any person in some degree familiar with the hermetic tradition cannot ignore the striking similarities between the symbolic language of alchemy and that of coat of arms. In fact, those similarities appear to be the more natural and logical the better we are versed in both subjects.
When speaking about “family coat of arms”, we should remember that this phenomenon appeared not earlier than the beginning of XIV c.; it was unknown before, and together with other social changes of the period marks the decline of the tradition of chivalry. Initially (“when hermeticism and heraldry coincided” as Robert Viel put in his “Les Origines Symboliques du Blason”) the true knighthood knew only individual coat of arms; it belonged to one person and reflected his personal quest, it was an allegoric depiction of his life course, his purpose and ambition. In short, it was a symbol of individual Opus. Should we understand the Opus here in alchemical sense? Yes, if we are faithful to the unity of Hermetic tradition – and it was proven by academic researchers that the tradition of chivalry roots in it.
A most explicit however short text on the subject was published anonymously in “Atlantis” magazine (No 281, Jan 1975); in fact, it is a personal letter sent by an anonymous adept to some French alchemist. My English translation of that document follows below:
“You say you are interested in heraldic. In what connection? It has drawn my attention because in my youth I was professionally involved with heraldic painting. For this reason I had to learn the rules of heraldry and different pieces that constitute a coat of arms, although without any other interest but the professional. Few years later, having been instructed sufficiently enough in hermeticism in terms of both symbolism and practice, I understood that heraldic was totally hermetic, not just in its symbolic aspect, but also as a physical representation of the alchemical work. If this is of any interest to you, I can make a short summary of its features.
The ancient shield had the same shape as the shield of High Middle Ages. Later it was stylized and shaped into a rectangle with the base of accolade. Thus, the ancient form represents exactly the cup of a crucible  when its contents are congealed and it is put in vertical position. Thus the shield with all its colors demonstrates different states of the Work with crucible.
The third shape that the shield may take is oval or “women’s”; in this case we can see not the masculine furnace but the egg of the feminine hatching. In the decline of Middle Ages the clergy adopted that shape to emphasize their non-involvement with the military symbolism, but those details do not present any hermetic interest. The only important thing is that the oval shape has feminine attribution.
I do not want to tell anything about the German shield, fussy and asymmetrical. Being of late and fanciful design, it does not possess any other quality but to fit the heavy decorations of the period.
The most fundamental rule of heraldic is that one never should place enamel on enamel or metal on metal. Two metals are gold and silver. The enamels or (colors) are as follows: sable (black), azure (blue), Gules (red), vert (green) and eisen (orange) . “Eisen” means iron in German; they were making it of iron oxide in various degrees of calcination – from muddy orange to reddish brown and even dark-purple, which caused debate among specialists in heraldry and painters-heraldists. Five enamels plus two metals make up seven planets or seven regimes: black, Saturn; blue, Jupiter; silver, the Moon; green, Venus; orange, Mars; red, the Sun. Gold is the first degree, degree of Mercury, and then it becomes the eighth after the red of the Sun, being alpha and omega, the beginning and the end. It is in gold, the ripest metal finished by Nature, the seed is found – the beginning of the super-metallic cycle, which has to pass though the cycle to multiply the seed.
Why do they call the colors “enamels”? Enamel generally is a melted glassy substance, colored with a metallic salt. The tincture of a metal is extracted by dissolving it in a melted salt. The latter flows on the non-reacted metal constituting what they call “cap” in chemistry, and in heraldic is called Chief.
If one pours that product in a fused metal, its introduction is represented as a vertical column that plunges down the crucible – Pale. During reiterations, when the enamel (or tincture) stays within metal unseparated, it is represented as the horizontal Fasse in the middle of the shield. Finally, when it is fully separated from the metal and settles in the bottom of the crucible, it is called Point.
Now you can understand the rule to always combine enamel with metal: the enamel is excipient that contains the tincture in its different states. Combining enamel with enamel does not make sense, and metal with metal with remain inert.
Besides five colors and two metals, there are two types of fur: ermine and vairy. Ermine is white Mercurius (Hermes) which forms the mantle of the King (Mercurius covering gold) and whitens him. This is the Mercurius in the highest degree of mercurial purity; ermine is known for not admitting any stains. Vairy (from Latin “varius”) is the first Mercurius that changes colors in the process of its purification; being imperfect in comparison with ermine, this is Mercurius on its way to purity.
I’m going to give you an overview of the essential shield elements. Among the known elements we distinguish the lion (which is sulphur), the eagle (volatile Mercurius), the snake (salt of the fixed earth), the dolphin (living quintessence hidden in the water).
The eagle may have one or two heads – simple volatile Mercurius or double Mercurius. The simple Mercurius is the dissolvent; the double one is the union of the dissolvent with the Mercurius of gold volatilised with it. The dragon is the final intimate union of the volatile with the fixed (winged body of a serpent) which contains two agents related to the dissolution and the fixation of the quintessence; its double activity is signified with the fire from its mouth and the venom of its tail.
Among the supporters, one can see the lion and the unicorn: red sulphur and white sulphur. The shield is topped with an iron helmet with white plumes issuing from it, something not very convenient in a battle. These plumes represent the excess of volatile spirit which leaks from the iron helmet and evaporates in the air.
Many other details can be mentioned on the list; all of them are faithfully representing agents, operations, or consequent states. Naturally, with the decline and multiplication of the armory, a whole bunch of the elements without actual meaning were invented. They are not worth studying since they are but whimsical means of expression.
Here I stop for now”.
- (Iulia Millesima’s note about the symbol of crucible in operative Alchemy). In the humid metallurgic way, the operations performed into the real common crucible are reserved to the first part of the Opus, the preparatory works ( which some call first work). And these works in the common crucible are not so different from those described by Glaser, Lemery, Lancillotti and Lefevre, just to cite some. The crucible described in the coats of arms may instead be a symbol of the third part of the Opus. So, the heraldic crucible could be just symbolic. The crucible has been chosen as symbol because, in this third stage, the regimens of fire are indispensable to be known and masterly performed. But not only, also because in this stage the Mercurius should have formed an outer layer more consistent than the interior part ( for instance, to the purpose, some alchemists suggest to not get rid of all the calcium carbonate when purifying tartar). The heart is a synonym of the symbol of the crucible, because of the shape similar to a crucible. Heart and crucible are symbols of the Vessel. Which in the dry way ( chosen by the many in the last work, in fact one can start with the wet way and then finish with the dry) is made up of Mercurius, although it has become Sulphur. We are not already talking of the philosophical egg, but the process to get to the egg. In the dry metallurgic way at high temperatures, which I have very little acquaintance with, it appears that the crucible is used from the first work to separate the ore into its purest elements and to reunify them in the second phase, with the production of the little remore. And, although the process may seem close to normal metallurgy, strange events occur);
- (Translator’s note). In fact, this heraldic color is more often referred as tawny (or tenné);